Summer 2005

It’s Tough to Find New Footholds in Journalism

‘My experience speaks to the barriers that prevent the free trade of journalistic talent.’

By George Abraham

Canada
“Richly informed and competently written. A few tweaks still to go.”

The words fell like manna from heaven. They were music and traction, and I hung on to them for dear life, for they let me know I was beginning to make sense to editors in this new country of Canada, where I’d come to study and work. They were telling me to press on, keep the faith, and continue being passionate about journalism. Some of the comfort came from the fact that this e-mailed comment came from a very accomplished editor, a journalism professor, and somebody whose opinion means a lot to me.

Granted that journalism in Canada was a little different from the craft I’d practiced in my native India and in the Persian Gulf, where my last job, as managing editor, masked my real role as a proxy for government censors. Yet in this long-time democracy, which is justifiably proud of its Charter of Rights and Freedoms, I have found the press acting more as a contented ally than the watchful adversary of the government that I think it could be.

My opinion did not matter, though. I had a few successes with my reporting, but nothing remotely close to the challenging assignment I had been waiting for. The writing I was doing, based on my extensive experience reporting in Asia, my Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, and a graduate program in my adopted country, were evidently falling short of the Canadian standard.

When I heard my professors talk about a writer’s voice, I’d wonder whether the problem lay in the fact that I was not convincingly Canadian. As an Indian-born immigrant, I did not trace my roots back to either of Canada’s mother-nations, Britain and France. Nevertheless, my editor appeared to be telling me that I was on the road to getting there. Other than for a few minor tweaks, my submission was ready to go, a prelude perhaps to more opportunities. It was a good omen. What could be more satisfying, more exhilarating, and validating for an immigrant journalist trying to find his feet in an alien setting? It looked like the wind was definitely in my sails.

Foreign Journalists’ Experiences

Maybe coming to Canada in September 2002 was a bad move for somebody with my background. From afar, Canada seemed an open country, a good citizen of the world, and genuinely more welcoming of immigrants despite its inhospitable winters. It had a good international reputation—something that appealed to my interest in foreign policy—and I knew that one of its prime ministers, Lester Pearson, had won the Nobel Peace Prize for his intervention in the Suez crisis of 1956. There also seemed to be an almost borderless geography between the United States and Canada, reinforced in my imagination by the fact that the two nations often appeared to work in concert on the international stage.

In my mind, there was little to differentiate the American “land of opportunities” ethos from Canada, and so when my family’s immigration application was approved almost immediately, it didn’t seem like a daunting leap of faith. Eventually, I figured, I would find my calling as the foreign editor at one of Canada’s national newspapers.

I just did not visualize newspaper editors not responding positively to my job application, especially since I was willing to accept a learn-the-ropes position before moving on to higher and better assignments. Instead I heard a lot of reassuring words, a lot of silence, too, but no job offers.

Most surprising to me about the professional aspects of my move here has been the little interest shown in what I did before I came to Canada. Perhaps this should not be such a shock. After all, journalism has been defined as a cultural rather than an intellectual industry under global trade rules. And nowhere, it seems, should this exclusion be more relevant than in Canada, where jousting with American hegemony animates the national conversation. Journalists here see themselves as part of the national effort to maintain Canadian sovereignty against American invasion. This perhaps makes it difficult for them to see how somebody from another part of the world could possibly wave their flag as effectively as someone who spent a lifetime absorbing what this battle for identity is all about.

In a nation that measures “Canadian content” through a bureaucratic process much like fractional distillation and appoints a Royal Commission to evolve safeguards against American domination of news media, there are surely those who say “foreign” writers deserve nothing better than a bum’s rush. The cynic in me insists there is a more sinister explanation: Newsroom managers have become more insular and provincial even as globalization and immigration transform the world beyond their ramparts. The free trade of goods, services, intellectual property, information, even diseases and pollution, is a daily reality, and professionals in an increasing number of fields find themselves able to compete globally for jobs and contracts. However journalists, who have done so much to advance and trumpet this ineluctable process, seem immune to globalization’s otherwise universal impact. Skills and training acquired in one country appear irrelevant in another (except when it involves journalists parachuting into a “hot” news zone and presuming to know the locale like the back of their hands).

My experience speaks to the barriers that prevent the free trade of journalistic talent. Celebrated Canadian writer and editorialist Haroon Siddiqui also has a compelling story to tell about his slow rise within Canada’s newspaper industry. Despite arriving with a journalistic background, his first newspaper job came only after he was forced by circumstances to sell suits at Simpson’s in Toronto as a way to outlast unimaginative editors who seemed unable to spot talent in anybody but made-in-Canada journalists. His experience has taught me a lot about the ways of my adopted country.

Finding a Home in Journalism

For Siddiqui, the year was 1967, and Canada was encouraging immigration, as it does today. Then the profile of newcomers was still predominantly white. Siddiqui remembers that teachers arriving in Canada from Australia were receiving five-year tax breaks as a bonus. He traveled to Canada on the suggestion of then Canadian high commissioner to India, Roland Michener, who told the news agency (Press Trust of India) reporter, “Go to Canada, young man.” Editors did not queue up at Toronto airport to recruit him when he arrived from India, but Siddiqui’s “spunk” made an impression on legendary editor Clark Davey at The Globe and Mail. There was no job offer, though. Davey wanted him to work at a smaller paper first. That was when he had to take up a job as a sales clerk, an eight-month experience that Siddiqui now says, “straightened me out.”

On Davey’s recommendation, Siddiqui landed a job as a reporter at The Brandon Sun in Manitoba, a prairie town where the temperature plunges to minus 30 degrees Celsius. Siddiqui spent 10 years there, eventually becoming managing editor, directing an 18-person newsroom, and running a paper that had a circulation of about 35,000. The Toronto Star made an offer in 1978, and Siddiqui accepted after becoming the object of a “bidding war” between the Toronto paper and the national Globe. It didn’t faze him then that he was hired as a freelancer—without a specific job description—but in retrospect, he realizes the newspaper was hiring him for his potential rather than as a square peg fitting into a square hole. “I cannot imagine that kind of [hiring] conversation taking place now,” he says. “The Star was willing to take on talent and later find a niche for me.”

Siddiqui, who is now the Star’s editorial page editor emeritus, stresses that his hiring had nothing to do with ideology or diversity. “I was putting out a good newspaper [the Sun] and had occasional bylines in The Globe and Mail.” And when he first arrived at the Star, he had the luxury of working without a designated beat or title for four months. For him, the tempo picked up considerably with news of the Iranian revolution in February 1979, followed soon after by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. For both of these momentous stories, Siddiqui coordinated the Star’s coverage and, by 1982, he was news editor. In 1986, he became national editor and, eight years later, he was named editorial page editor. As far as he knows, nobody in the Star’s newsroom asked why the paper had named an immigrant as its national editor. “The Star’s philosophy was that you write yourself on to Page One,” Siddiqui explains.

I asked Siddiqui if he believed Canadian newsrooms offer a level playing field for those journalists who come from other countries. “No,” he replied, stressing that had he landed in Canada more recently his career might have taken a much more unspectacular course. “I would not be able to do it now,” he said emphatically.

When I asked him why, he said he believes journalism has become the “least movable feast” in Canada because of hurdles posed by bilateral treaties with the United States and Mexico. He also blames media corporatism, which has resulted in cutbacks that allow for very little movement of journalists across borders. “There are no openings,” Siddiqui said, and added that “journalists and editors have closed minds to newer kinds of people, despite putting out a new product every day.” Though he believes that immigrant journalists have skills that are portable, what they lack is a “mental library”—the history of Canada and modern Canadian politics, its culture of entertainment and sport, and its long-standing public policy debates— subjects that provide necessary context for any kind of news coverage. “Yes, these can be learned, but who will provide immigrant journalists the time to learn? This issue has not been resolved and hence talent is wasted.”

It occurs to me that there might be another trend at work: Globalization notwithstanding, newspaper journalism is still local in flavor. David Ljunggren, a Stockholm-born Reuters correspondent now based in Ottawa, says that unlike television, newspapers tend to look at events through “local eyes.” “How can you globalize that?” he asks. Reuters is among the few news organizations that appear to stress the value of communicating across cultures and continents, an aspect of the craft that has all but disappeared from newspaper journalism in its effort to please the lowest common denominator.

In time, I will probably be able to compete for journalism jobs in Canada. My days in the wilderness might lend me the mental library that will eventually qualify me for a position in a Canadian newsroom. But by then it is quite likely I will have lost those elements of my resumé that would have made my more immediate contribution unique.

George Abraham, a 1995 Nieman Fellow and recent journalism school graduate, writes from Ottawa, Canada.

No Comments Yet
Submit a Comment
   
   
   
Enter the words above: * Enter the numbers you hear: *
Switch to audio Switch to image
Thank you for your comment. It will be published after it is approved by an editor. Read our comments policy »